LOS ANGELES -- The Suns' sudden burst of success in the Western Conference finals has done more than rattle the Lakers out of their comfort zone and anger Kobe Bryant. It's spawned a storm of revisionist history and misconceptions about the offensive system that has been the foundation of Phoenix's success over the past decade.
Can the triple-threat, spread-the-floor, 3-point shooting system win an NBA championship? That's a loaded question, and the answer depends on who's asking it and which direction they're pointing their ammunition. When the Suns advanced to the conference finals, they were lavished with praise from those who saw this as a repudiation of former Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni. Those critics of D'Antoni, who has brought his system to the Knicks while he waits to assemble the right talent to run it, apparently forgot he reached the conference finals twice during his tenure with the Suns.
The flip-flopping continued when the Suns fell into an 0-2 deficit, with the same tired arguments about Phoenix's gimmicky offense and sudden silence from those who were so effusive in their praise of coach Alvin Gentry's emphasis on defense. In the most significant strategic shift of the series, Gentry has gotten by for the past game-and-a-half playing a 2-3 zone -- blasphemy for most NBA coaches and probably not sustainable through the rest of the series.
Here's the truth: With the right personnel, the Suns' offense is virtually unguardable, and there is nothing inherent in it that prevents players from playing defense. Just look at the Orlando Magic, who went to the Finals last season playing a similar pick-and-roll, spread-the-floor, 3-point-oriented offense and yet all along have emphasized defense as a calling card. The Magic are having their problems with the Celtics, but that's mostly because they miss Hedo Turkoglu's deep shooting threat. His replacement, Vince Carter, isn't as good from the 3-point line and isn't driving to the basket enough to make another kind of impact.
"I think we embrace it because we're successful in it," Suns guard Jason Richardson said. "We've got so many guys that are at their best when we play in this style of basketball. We're up and down the court, we're moving around, we're having fun, we buy into the system. We've got a great group of guys that love playing with each other. So that adds to it, too."
Even D'Antoni would admit that he could learn a thing or two from Gentry, who has brought more substance to the Suns' attack by insisting on a commitment to the defensive end while developing and believing in his bench. The defensive part still needs work, but Gentry's faith in a 10-man rotation -- something D'Antoni doesn't believe in -- was never more evident than in Game 4 Tuesday night, when the Suns beat the Lakers with a sustained contribution from the five reserves in the fourth quarter.
But the system clearly isn't without flaws.
"How far are you going to go in the playoffs with it?" Richardson asked. "Do you have the personnel? Do you have the mentality that you've got to run every time? It depends on the team."
Lakers-Suns series: Tied at 2
The back-and-forth about how viable the Phoenix way is in the playoffs has implications that go beyond the outcome of the conference finals. It's one of the key subplots in the free-agent chase that will begin July 1, with the focus on the top potential free agent, LeBron James.
Teams armed with max cap space like the Bulls, Nets and Clippers have openings for a head coach, meaning they theoretically could use the coaching hire as a lure for LeBron and other free agents. The Knicks took a different approach under team president Donnie Walsh, who ended years of organizational dysfunction and chaos by committing to D'Antoni from the moment he set foot in Madison Square Garden. Did he do the right thing?
D'Antoni's detractors argue that his system has never won an NBA title and that the Knicks would've been better off with no head coach and a shot at persuading James to hook up with the coach of his choice -- such as Phil Jackson, John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski. Some take the argument even further, saying D'Antoni should be fired now to ensure that the Knicks have a better chance to woo LeBron.
A lot of dumb things have been written about LeBron's free agency, but this one might take the cake. Whether LeBron succumbs to the allure of New York or not, one thing people close to him won't deny is that he realizes how much of a force he would be in D'Antoni's system.
Instead of the traditional notion of positions 1-5 on the floor, the Suns' and Knicks' offense is predicated on interchangeable wings and big men. Whichever wing gets the ball first pushes it up the floor, looking for pick-and-roll action from the first big down the floor. A 3-point shooter runs to each wing or corner, and the second big down the floor is a trailer.
No traditional point guard is needed, although let's face it: The Suns' success from start to finish has been predicated on Steve Nash because, well, he's Steve Nash. Other point guards could run the system -- Deron Williams thrives in a pick-and-roll offense in Utah -- but short of that kind of point-guard talent, the offense can run through any wing player who is good with the ball, has court vision and is a superior playmaker.
|Suns coach Alvin Gentry: 'I think there's a lot of guys that can play this way. But I think it's a fun way to play.' (Getty Images)|
"I've always said that LeBron's more Scottie Pippen than Michael Jordan," Suns president Steve Kerr said.
If paired with an athletic big man who can catch and shoot on the move and drive to the basket -- Amar'e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, or even David Lee would do the trick -- the combination would be a nightmare to defend. Add Danilo Gallinari and another dependable 3-point shooter to the mix, and you can see what a handful this would be for even the most disciplined defenses.
What has separated the Suns from other pick-and-roll teams like Utah and Orlando is their emphasis on doing all of this early in the shot clock. Seven seconds or less has been curtailed to 12 seconds or less under Gentry, but the idea is the same: Take advantage of defensive players' unwillingness to run the floor and make them defend in transition, when the offense has a clear advantage, instead of in the half-court.
"This is not an offense where you can walk," Richardson said. "You've got to really be in shape and be ready to run all the time. A lot of people are not used to that and don't really like to run."
The knock on D'Antoni's lack of belief in defense stems more from the personnel at his disposal -- and in some cases, his decisions on who to play -- than from a fundamental flaw in his offensive style. In order to play fast and in transition, you need big men who are athletic enough to run the floor and catch-and-shoot on the move.
Finding players with those attributes who also are rugged enough on the defensive end is no easy task. In fact, though he's coached a limited roster in cap-clearing mode in New York, D'Antoni has perhaps further impaired his reputation by opting to play Lee at center because he's so good in the pick-and-roll. On the other end, he's a huge liability against bigger, stronger centers and forwards. This is the problem with defending when you run this system: It's hard to find defensive-minded big men who can also handle the demands of the offense. D'Antoni has often chosen to play small and give up defense for offense, something Gentry has shied away from.
"I think there's a lot of guys that can play this way," Gentry said. "We have Steve, and Steve is obviously the motor behind the vehicle. But I think it's a fun way to play."
Will fun and entertainment collide with a championship one of these days? With the Suns pushing the Lakers in the conference finals, that question is on the mind of coaches, executives and free agents around the league. It was on Bryant's mind after Game 4, when he took a not-so-subtle swipe at the Suns' style of play and said the Lakers should be worried about defense.
"Our focus was on the other side of the ball, which doesn't win championships," Bryant said.
But would the Cavs still be playing -- and would Mike Brown still have a job -- if Cleveland had made LeBron a playmaker in smaller lineups instead of a jump-shooter with Shaquille O'Neal taking up space in the paint? J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao are the prototypical big men for the spread offense, yet Brown was reluctant to play small against Boston because he didn't want to give up anything on defense. The argument cuts both ways.
As for D'Antoni and Gentry, they have at least one thing in common that's crucial to making this system work: Any coach who's running it has to check his control-freak tendencies at the locker-room door.
"As a coach, you have to relinquish some control," Gentry said. "But if you believe in your guys, I think that's easy to do. Steve knows and he gets us in the right spot. ... It's just a situation where as a coach, you've got to be willing to let some things go."
In Phoenix, Nash is the coach on the floor. If LeBron played the same system, everything would run through him -- every pick-and-roll, every 3-pointer, every trailing layup. He'd probably average a triple-double playing this style. But would it get him a championship? That's the $100 million question.